The recent recalls of lead-containing toys have raised many concerns about the safety of our products. Although lead is a naturally occurring metal that can be found practically everywhere — in the earth's crust, batteries, water pipes, pencils (okay, not pencils -- I meant crayons), and even food -- its levels are generally declining in our products and in our environment. Lead was used for decades in gasoline, paints, and other household products, with its use steadily phased out since the 1970s in the United States, Canada, Western Europe and elsewhere. This phase out is the direct result of lead's health risks, which may be particularly large for babies and young children who are growing so quickly. These risks include blood and brain function damage and growth slowing, with these risks increasing with the amount of lead exposure. Children are generally exposed to lead when they eat lead-containing paint chips or as more recently reported, when they eat or suck on lead-painted or containing toys. Although the United States and other countries have long had federal standards for lead in paint, toys and jewelry with unsafe levels of lead are still often sold in the United States, even as recently as this past month. When caught, these unsafe lead levels prompt toy recalls and often stricter regulations.
What this means for you, your children, and their toys is not entirely clear. At a minimum, you should not let your children chew on or put toys in their mouth. In addition, you should have check the Consumer Protection Safety Commission's (CPSC) list of recalled toys and remove any toys on this list from your home. If your children have not been tested already, you should ask your doctor or health clinic to give your children a lead blood test to make sure that your children's lead exposures are within healthy limits.
Beyond these steps, you could remove all painted or metal toys that are made in countries without strong consumer protection and occupational safety laws. Or, you can test the toys of concern for lead. The best and most surefire way to test for lead is to send your toys to a lead-certified professional laboratory. A list of these laboratories can be found at the National Lead Information Center (1-800-424-LEAD). Prior to going this route, you may want to test the toys for lead using one of the many home lead testing kits that can be purchased at hardware stores or over the internet. These kits generally use chemicals that change color in the presence of lead to give an idea of the amount of lead in the tested surface. Since they often cannot tell high lead levels from low lead levels, these tests are not recommended by the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA). Some home test kits, however, may be recommended by a state or knowledgeable agency and may help you decide whether additional testing of your toys for lead is necessary. For example, a positive lead result may help you select toys for further testing. You should remember that these home lead tests are far from perfect and that a negative result does not mean that there is no lead in your toy. It just means that there is less lead than can be detected by the kit.
There are many resources to learn more about what you can do to reduce your children's exposure to lead. For example, the NLIC website has fairly complete information about lead and its health impacts, while the US EPA published a good pamphlet on lead testing. Also, the brochures published by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development "How to Check for Lead Hazards in Your Home" and "Lead: Should You Be Concerned?" are good summaries of the important issues.
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Helen Suh MacIntosh is a professor in environmental health at Harvard University and studies how pollution behaves in the environment and how it affects people's health. Please keep in mind that her answers are just her interpretation of available information and should not be taken as the only viewpoint or solution to a problem. Use this column at your own risk. Having said this, please feel free to post any of your environmental health questions to Helen@TreeHugger.com. (Please use a descriptive email subject line and mention if you want to remain anonymous or not).